Heat waves, severe droughts, water shortages: the consequences of climate change are already very evident in Lebanon, and could lead to new outbreaks of violent conflict. Since the state is not adressing the problems, an environmental organization is bringing local people to the table – and drawing on their traditional heritage.
Randa Ghamloush is sitting at her kitchen table in the Lebanese village of Kayfoun. And waiting. Her apartment is on the second floor of an apartment building. A small balcony adjoins the kitchen. The outside door is ajar. It is mid-November and the humid air is drifting through the apartment. It is dusk outside, but not a single light is burning in the house. Randa Ghamloush had wanted to prepare dinner, but there's not much she can do. The electricity is out, yet again. "We can live without electricity," says the 50-year-old Lebanese woman. "Living without water is the real challenge."
Kayfoun is located in the Lebanon Mountains about 25 kilometers from the capital Beirut. Despite the increasingly hot and dry summers, there is still water here. The village is not far from springs in the mountains, but Randa Ghamloush says that the residents have not received any water for almost four years. Since then, she and her family of five have had to buy expensive water from private companies in order to take a shower, use the toilet, or cook. The precious water is stored in tanks on the flat roof, which are supposed to be filled twice a week. But just now, the tank is empty again. Purchasing water from these private sources costs them around 80 US dollars a month. The Ghamloush family can hardly afford that – nor can most Lebanese.
Since 2019, Lebanon has been mired in the worst economic crisis of its history. Hyperinflation, corruption and a dysfunctional political system are paralyzing the “cedar state”. In addition, the effects of climate change are putting the country under heavy pressure. Droughts, forest fires, and water shortages will reduce its GDP by at least 14 percent by 2040, prime minister Najib Mikati reported at the World Climate Change Conference in Egypt. Lebanon's Environment Ministry says that 2021 and 2022 were the hottest years since weather records began.
Increasing drought and uncertain water supplies also fuel social conflict. Who gets water when it is scarce? And who doesn't? Who decides how water resources are to be distributed? And most importantly, how can social peace be secured when precious resources continue to dwindle due to climate change?
Randa Ghamloush looks out from her balcony into the valley below Kayfoun. She enjoys a clear, almost picturesque view of the mountains. Today, a rainbow stretches across the sky. From here, she can see all the way to the mountain peaks, which are covered with snow in the winter months and fill the country's rivers with water. The springs there could supply not only the approximately 2,000 inhabitants of Kayfoun, where mostly Muslims live, but also the 200 inhabitants of Shimlan, the neighboring Christian village. But right now, no functioning infrastructure exists between the villages, not least due to Lebanon's long history of conflict. During the civil war between 1975 and 1990, various denominations and factions fought for supremacy in the country. At that time, Kayfoun was already Muslim-dominated whereas Shimlan was deserted for a long time because its Christian residents had fled. Even after the violence ended, mistrust and fear remained.
The people in the region are on their own. "Ishtirak," says Randa Ghamloush almost resignedly and shrugs her shoulders as she leaves the house. Ishtirak means something like ‘standing order’. By this she means she also has to purchase electricity privately. Ishtirak for the electricity, Ishtirak for the water. Paying double bills is now part of everyday life for people in Lebanon – once for the state providers, who should supply electricity and water but usually don’t, and a second time for the private companies.
The government has realized that it must act and wants to ensure that resources are managed better. That was what Prime Minister Mikati stated at the World Climate Conference, adding that the country must adapt as best it can to the impact of climate change. But in direct conversation, even cabinet members admit that the reality is very different: "Lebanon suffers from poor management," Lebanon’s Environment Minister Nasser Yassin tells us. "We have good water resources, but we need better management. All our rivers are heavily polluted." So, as is often the case in Lebanon, people have to come up with their own solutions because the state is failing.
That's why Randa Ghamloush is on her way to the community center run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL), an environmental organization supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. She wants to take action herself and understand how she can assume responsibility for the natural resources in her home country. Instead of waiting for the state to organize a fair and efficient distribution of resources, this environmental organization wants to mediate between the Muslim village of Kayfoun and the Christian community of Shimlan. The local communities are to work out ways of how to benefit from the region's natural resources without harming its biodiversity. The name of the project is Hima for Peace. The idea is new and yet quite old.
"Hima means 'protected space'. In Islam, we believe that the earth has been entrusted to us and that we, as human beings, must take care of it," says Sheikh Hussein Al Harake, the imam of Kayfoun. Accordingly, a piece of land designated as a Hima does not belong to any individual or group: "A Hima is dedicated to the common good, with the goal that all the inhabitants and the entire ecosystem benefit together." The Hima method was first used more than 1,500 years ago. That's why the environmental organization is also relying on this approach. Kayfoun and Shimlan are connected by a Hima, a protected space that belongs to everyone.
"In Islam, the Hima approach is particularly used to resolve conflicts in local communities," says SPNL co-founder Assad Serhal and explains how the organization is applying the traditional approach to 21st-century Lebanon: "The basic idea is that all the stakeholders – community leaders, ministries, citizens – come to the table to work together to safeguard nature and secure Lebanon’s future."
In Lebanon, cooperation between villages of different religions is still considered an exception today – a good 30 years after the end of the civil war. The political system grants equal participation to the various religious groups. In reality, however, the individual groups struggle for dominance. That is precisely what the environmental organization SPNL wants to change with the Hima approach in Kayfoun and Shimlan.
Randa Ghamloush has an appointment with other women at the community center. "We invite women from Kayfoun and Shimlan, cook together, share knowledge," says the 25-year-old project manager Sara Shamsedeen. "For example, we show the importance of recycling and the impact of thoughtless pollution on all of us." Before the Hima project, there was a lot of mistrust, ignorance, and hardly any exchanges between the villagers. "I, too, come from Kayfoun. But I’d never been to Shimlan. Never," says Shamsedeen. Yet the villages are only a few minutes apart by car.
SPNL founder Assad Serhal's motto is "If everyone takes care of their own garden, our whole country will flourish." Currently, there are a total of 28 Himas in Lebanon: bird sanctuaries, national parks, ecotourism initiatives. And far more are planned – also with the support of institutions like the Robert Bosch Stiftung. By combining local dialogue, economic development, and sustainable thinking, the Hima is a promising model for dealing with climate change. "There's interest from all over the world," Serhal says. "That's a good feeling for us in the MENA region: not always just taking, but also bringing something of our own to the world."
Thanks to the Hima for Peace dialogue, the citizens of Kayfoun and Shimlan were convinced to share their water resources. A pipeline is to be built between the two towns – a success, also from the point of view of the religious leaders: "This is something new that didn't exist before," says Shimlan's priest Elie Abdel Maseeh with a satisfied smile. "We are very happy to get water from Kayfoun." The idea is still more like a pipe dream because the water pumps can't operate without electricity. So, SPNL is working on powering the pumps with solar energy in the near future.
“Since I’ve been taking part in the workshops, I feel more connected to nature and have a much greater awareness of how important our resources are and how nice it is to come into closer contact with my neighbors in Shimlan through nature," says Randa Ghamloush. She no longer feels so helpless and at the mercy of the Lebanese system. Thanks to SPNL she finally has some room for maneuver herself. Then she sets off back home. Her son has called. The private suppliers have brought the water. The tank on the roof is full again – for the time being.
Climate change will have far-reaching impacts on the Middle East. Experts anticipate the region’s future will be dramatically affected by changing climate conditions and extreme weather events, the scarcity of natural resources, and the continuing environmental pollution. Existing conflict lines are likely be exacerbated by these dynamics.The Robert Bosch Stiftung and its partners Orient Matters and the Arab Reform Initiative are striving to build a program around innovative projects, institutions, and individuals in the Middle East. The program and even more so its projects aim to tackle the interlinkages between climate change, conflict, and environmental governance using comprehensive and sustainable approaches.